Meet Linda Stahlnecker, the woman who heads up the Maine Milk Quality Laboratory, an FDA-certified regulatory lab charged with providing analysis of all the state’s milk and milk products. She still remembers when raw milk arrived in bottles at the door of her childhood home in Farmingdale, but these days she’s busy overseeing the boom in Maine’s production of artisanal cheeses, raw milk, yogurts and such. The lab’s job is to make sure dairy products made for retail sales meet health and safety standards. We talked to Stahlnecker about the recent spike in licensing requests, whether she plays favorites and what troubles her about farmers markets.

SKIM OR WHOLE: First things first, how do you take your milk? “I buy skim,” Stahlnecker said. “My whole family drinks skim. If they drink whole, they think they are drinking cream.” What about raw? “I drank it as a kid,” she said. “But now I don’t drink it unless it tests clean.”

RESUME: Stahlnecker has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and a master’s in food science. She has a total of 16 years experience at the lab, with a few breaks. She started her career working for blueberry processor Wyman’s in food product development and also spent five years at Northeast Laboratory Services doing metals analysis and running the microbiology lab. At the Maine Milk Quality Lab, Stahlnecker oversees the inspection and testing program, which has licensed 134 producers. In addition to milk and cheese, they test yogurt, kefir, ice cream and do rinse tests on containers.

BUSY 9 TO 5: The lab tests 40 to 100 samples a week, depending on the season (goat’s milk and ice cream seasons are just around the corner). No, they don’t use petri dishes. “3M has developed a media that is just flat, like a deck of cards,” she said. “It is a lot less space- and time-consuming than the old methods.” Stahlnecker works with a staff of three inspectors who visit farms and producers. “We had two, but we managed to get another one,” she said. “Because we couldn’t handle it otherwise.”

The lab has seen a rapid uptick in licensing requests, with 17 possible permits in the works and another 20 producers asking to get the ball rolling. Why so busy? The number of cheesemakers is on the rise, for one thing, she said. Public interest in drinking raw milk (milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill potentially harmful bacteria like E. coli and salmonella) has never been higher.

Maine allows farmers to sell raw milk straight from the farm without a retail license as long as they don’t advertise; with a license, a farmer has more opportunities to sell that milk. But the reason she hopes is true: “It might also be that we’re getting enough information out there for people to realize that it is not that hard to get their license. That people are starting to realize it is actually of benefit to them.”

RAW DEAL? The food sovereignty movement in Maine has pitted small producers and their happy customers against the state, most notably in the high profile case of Blue Hill’s Dan Brown, a small-scale farmer who refused to get licensed, saying the costs would be prohibitive (a license costs $25, but getting equipment and the milking and bottling area up to code can be pricey. For years, the state had a look-the-other-way attitude. That changed in 2007 when attorneys took note of the state’s leniency and insisted on enforcing the policy.

But there’s nothing inherently wrong with raw milk, Stahlnecker said. She mostly worries about the potential for unsafe milk to land in a customer’s hands. “The thing that troubles me the most is farmers markets,” she said. How so? The markets don’t police whether products are kept cold – key with dairy, obviously, she said. And the consumer doesn’t get a chance to either inspect the farm or, if someone else is doing the sales, to meet the farmer. “It sets up a really bad situation,” she said. “My fear is for those 134 (licensed) producers,” she said. The bad press associated with illnesses caused by raw milk products could scare consumers off even the licensed products, she said.

ANGER MANAGEMENT: Stahlnecker works in the lab, but she still encounters members of the public who think state licensing is a nefarious, undemocratic business. Some come from the food sovereignty movement, or as Stahlnecker calls it, almost fondly, “food sov.” “It can be hard,” she said. “There are a lot of emotions tied up in this stuff … there’s a lot of bitterness toward the state in some of these areas, not just dairy. And I am not sure I understand it completely, because we have done nothing but try to help businesses.” Maine is one of only about a dozen states that allows any sales of raw milk.

PLAYING FAVORITES? What’s your favorite Maine yogurt? “Most of what we get is plain yogurt,” she said, in a tone that suggests some fruit would be nice. But she won’t tell. “I do have favorites. But I am not going to say because that would get me in so much trouble.” The loving attention that Maine producers are putting into their products is not lost on her. “Crooked Face Ricotta comes with this little raffia bow on it,” she said. “It’s always fun to see the creativity and love they put into it.”

LAST WORD: Stahlnecker called back after the interview was over and left a message about one thing she wanted to make sure was crystal clear. It might not be easy being the inspector, but “I’m always so excited for these folks who are putting out a raw dairy product that meets the pasteurized standards for coliform bacteria,” she said. “The vast majority of them do it every single month and the amount these people care? Like if they get in trouble, they really are passionate about cleaning it up. That’s one of the reasons I love the licensing program.… They are amazing people putting out amazing products.”